“Ezra” series: (post #7)
And when the seventh month had come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem. Then Jeshua the son of Jozadek and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brethren arose and built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Though fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries, they set the altar on its bases; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening burnt offerings. (Ezra 3:1-3, N.K.J.V.)
God showed Israel’s King David the Mount Moriah site upon which David’s son Solomon would eventually build the Jewish temple. God then spoke through the prophet Gad to tell David to erect an altar on that site (2 Samuel 24:18-25). In compliance with that command, David bought the site and erected an altar there. That divine sequence of building an altar before building a temple would be repeated by the group of Jews who returned to Judah from Babylonian exile.
The two main leaders of that group were Zerubbabel and Jeshua. Zerubbabel, who carried the title “governor,” was a descendant of David and as such served as the group’s civil leader. Jeshua, who carried the title “High Priest,” was a descendant of Aaron and as such served as the group’s spiritual leader. Both men understood that their first order of business in Jerusalem was to build a new altar. This was to be done even before the work on the temple itself began. After all, the outdoors altar that would sit at the front of the temple would be nothing less than the center of Israel’s corporate worship. If the Jews didn’t offer the Mosaic law’s required sacrifices, the nation had no hope of enjoying God’s favor.
Not only did Zerubbabel and Jeshua understand the priority of the altar, the rest of the people did as well. As verse 1 of our text describes the situation, the people gathered together “as one man to Jerusalem.” What a beautiful scene it must have been. These people were back in their homeland of Judah, resettled in the cities in which their forefathers had formerly lived, and now it was time to begin the work of building their new temple. That work would start with the erecting of a new altar.
The only hindrance to the peoples’ zeal was the fear they felt due to the threat of the enemies that surrounded them (3:3), especially to their immediate north. There, in Samaria, lived the descendants of the foreigners — Gentiles from Babylon, Cuthan, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim — who had been deported into the land of Israel by the Assyrian empire when the Assyrians had conquered Israel’s northern kingdom some 185 years earlier (2 Kings 17:24-41). These descendants had become even more firmly entrenched in the land during the decades the people of Judah had been in forced exile in Babylon.
Ezra 7:9 indicates that the trek from Babylon to Judah took four months, but we don’t know how much time elapsed between the group’s time of arrival in Judah and the erecting of the altar. Obviously, the people took some time to get settled in their new homes throughout the region. The words “And when the seventh month had come” seem to mean that the altar was officially erected on the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar year. Presumably, the new altar was built upon the foundations of the old one even though scholars are in agreement that most aspects of Zerubbabel’s temple were built on a smaller scale than had been used for Solomon’s temple. Just for the record, the bronze altar of Solomon’s temple had been approximately 30 feet long, 30 feet high, and 15 feet wide (2 Chronicles 4:1).
Once the new altar was completed, Jeshua and his priests immediately sacrificed burnt offerings upon it. These were the first such sacrifices that had been offered at that site since the Babylonians had destroyed the previous temple. Just as God had been pleased with the aroma of the burnt offerings that Noah had offered up following his departure from the Ark (Genesis 8:2021), surely God was equally pleased with the smell that lifted up to Him from the burnt offerings from the new altar in Jerusalem.
The “seventh month” (3:1) was the month called Tishri. It ran from September 15 through October 15 of our calendar year, and it was a very busy month in terms of the requirements of the Mosaic law. First, the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23-25; Numbers 29:1-6) was to take place on the first day of the month. Second, the Day of Atonement was to take place on the tenth day (Leviticus 23:26-32). Third, the Feast of Tabernacles was to take place on days 15-21 (Leviticus 23:33-36, 39-43; Numbers 29:12-29). Each of these annual events required the offering up of burnt sacrifices.
At the close of the month of Tishri, Jeshua and his fellow priests continued the law’s required practice of offering up a burnt offering each morning and evening. These were in addition to all the law’s other required sacrifices. Now that the Jews had an altar again, there was no excuse for them failing to keep the law’s ritualized system of sacrificing. If they needed to be reminded how seriously God took His law, all they had to do was remember that their failure to keep it was what had landed them in God’s woodshed called Babylon.
Today, we Christians must make sure that we ourselves keep worship front and center in our lives. Each of us should ask the question, “What kind of shape is my personal altar of worship in right now?” Sadly, some of us will have to admit that our altars are in disrepair and need some work. And how do we begin that work? We begin it by making worship a priority again. You see, God wants more than just the leftovers from our lives; He wants to have first place. And no matter how many beautiful temples we build, if each of them doesn’t have a functioning altar out in front it, our priorities are out of whack and we stand in danger of experiencing God’s hand of chastisement.